A federal grand jury in Trenton indicted former 9th District Assemblyman Daniel M. Van Pelt on Thursday, more than four months after his arrest on charges of accepting a $10,000 bribe as part of the largest corruption scandal in state history.
The former Ocean Township mayor is charged with extortion and accepting corrupt payments, and faces as much as 30 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.
Van Pelt, a Republican, has maintained his innocence since his arrest along with 43 others July 23. He resigned from the Assembly a week later and was fired from his full-time position as administrator of Lumberton Township, Burlington County.
"It's an unfortunate day because this man lost his job, his reputation and his political career," Van Pelt's attorney Robert Fuggi said Thursday, "and if he's found not guilty, what does that do? He can't get it back."
The indictment includes transcripts from taped conversations Van Pelt had with FBI witness Solomon Dwek, who posed as a corrupt developer named David Esenbach looking to build in the Waretown Town Center in Van Pelt's hometown of Ocean Township.
In those conversations, Van Pelt tells Dwek that he would use his influence to help get environmental permits for Dwek's project, as well as influence his former fellow committee members in the township.
According to charges against former Ocean County Democratic leader Alfonso Santoro, who pleaded guilty last week to accepting bribes from Dwek, Santoro worked to set up the first meeting between Van Pelt and Dwek on Feb. 11 at a restaurant in Ocean Township.
Fuggi said Santoro's guilty plea does not mean Van Pelt had the same corrupt intent to which Santoro admitted, and that the issue "would certainly be addressed at the trial."
At that first meeting, Dwek told Van Pelt about the project, and Van Pelt replied that he would need permits from the Department of Environmental Protection.
The 15-page indictment included excerpts of the conversations between Van Pelt and Dwek.
"You guys should hire me as a consultant," Van Pelt told Dwek, according to the indictment.
Dwek replied that he was neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but a member of the "green" party, and that "green is cash."
"You understand green party?" Dwek asked.
"Sure ... I got it," Van Pelt replied.
The two men met again Feb. 21 at a restaurant in Atlantic City. Van Pelt told Dwek that getting the permits would be "challenging but doable," and that he had a good reputation with the state since before he was an assemblyman.
"You let me know what I can do for you, sir," Van Pelt said. "Give me a call."
"Well, I want to, you know, get you on my team. A little something to start," he said, handing Van Pelt an envelope with $10,000 in cash inside.
Van Pelt said he did not know what to do with it, adding, "I'd do it for free."
"Listen, plenty of guys, free, this, that, but you know, it's America, one hand, you help me, I help you," Dwek replied. "That's it, but that's just the beginning. It will be more and more."
Two days later, the indictment says, Van Pelt deposited $5,500 of the cash at a bank in Lumberton, and March 1 he deposited another $4,400 at a bank in Barnegat Township.
The men met again March 30 at a restaurant in Ocean Township to continue talking about the project.
At that meeting, Van Pelt said he would ask the township to delay the due date for submissions of proposals for the Waretown Town Center project in order for him to take a look at Dwek's project.
On May 15, they met again in Ocean Township, and Dwek asked Van Pelt again about helping expedite his application.
"How does that work?" he said. "Let's say we have 15, 20 different applications, what do you do?"
"Make a few phone calls, ask them to, you know, move them to the top of the pile," Van Pelt said, according to an excerpt from another conversation in the indicment.
Van Pelt and Dwek met again the following week at the Ocean Breeze Diner, at which point Van Pelt asked former Township Administrator Kenneth Mosca to schedule Dwek for a presentation before the committee at its next meeting.
Dwek was scheduled to make that presentation in August, about three weeks after Van Pelt was arrested.
Upon hearing of the indictment, Van Pelt's former Assembly mate Brian Rumpf said he felt sorry for Van Pelt's family and what they have had to endure.
"Frankly, I still believe that it's just one very unfortunate and ugly situation," he said.
Fuggi said he would "zealously attack the government's case," saying he has significant questions about how the U.S. Attorney's Office handled the investigation, such as why it targeted an official who he said had no prior criminal record or ethics violations.
"I think that bolsters our position that the government instigated this activity and did not discover it," Fuggi said.
The arraignment date has not been set.
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